Monday, March 17, 2008

Cultural Tourism?

I've been thinking today about this idea of cultural tourism, and why it is that so many Westerners travel to poverty stricken countries in search of something? What is that something, and why do so many of us do it? Someone last night was talking about Americans' obsession with seeing the poor. I'm not quite sure what that is about, but I've been trying to take the responsible approach of asking myself why I am drawn to seeing things that are so different from the life I was given and continue to lead. I'm sure there is an inherent level of narcissism and the selfish act of "giving back" in there somewhere, but I think for me, I can honestly say that it is first and foremost a lure to have a greater context with which to understand and juxtapose my life -- the something perhaps serving as a search to fulfill the nothing I sometimes allow myself to feel. It's not as much about trying to change and save the world around me as it is trying to change and save myself. And by doing that, I hope to in turn influence those around me. Arguably, selfishness on a whole new level.

I had one of those contextual moments last week in the Agra train station when our ride back to Delhi was delayed four hours, which is to be expected when traveling via a local train in India. During that window of practiced flexibility, I met this family from the South who were also on our train. Both chemists, they are struggling to find work and recently moved to Delhi in search of more opportunity. However, their big dream is to move to Canada or the US. I know some of you have been in these situations before, but this was certainly one of those existential moments where on a human level you have to stop and ask yourself what it all means and how we get to where we are. This woman spoke 6 languages, raised three children, had a charming and intelligent husband, and here I was sitting next to her, representing the very dream she might not ever see because she was born into a different set of rules and opportunities. And it was only the happenstance of a delayed train that brought us together.

We shared stories and compared notes about our lives. She can't imagine not having an arranged marriage and being childless and single at 31 as much as I can't understand finding love in a forced relationship and keeping my entire body covered in clothing in a climate that is as hot as I would imagine the devil's office to be, but despite these divides we were able to laugh and share our common ground -- the desire to grow and learn. The hopes to create a better world for the generation behind us and a mutual craving for naan, which was sadly not a possibility at that hour. So when the train finally came, I felt overwhelmed with awkwardness when I was soon whisked away to the first class section while they stood waiting for second. Here we were, getting on the same train, going to same place, but unable to connect given the literal and physical boundaries of class. 

I usually try to bring things with me to share or give away on my travels, so on this journey, it has become those ribbons from the Bahia in Brazil. It took me a while to convince the husband that tying a blue ribbon on his wrist was no threat to his masculinity. So my last memory of this beautiful family was seeing them all wave goodbye to me as I walked down the plank of prosperity towards first and privileged class, with their blue Bahia ribbons fluttering in the hot, sticky air around them.

(Unfortunately, we don't have the bandwith on the ship for me to be posting photos to this blog, so I'm sorry it's not as pretty as I would like for it to be. If you want to see more of what I'm talking about, visually, I am doing my best to post photos to my flickr acct. Hopefully we'll gain more strength as we head towards Asia)


freddy funk said...

your cat sends her greetings from the MOON!! Meow!

Sebastian said...

I cant stop thinking about this post. even yesterday i was sitting in a meeting and with "Cultural Tourism" on the my mind.

not really sure why we as americans (Westerners) seem to love visiting 3rd-world poverty stricken.

i know i have been inspired by those i have met from less (much less) fortunate places than i. some of these people are able to keep a smile on their face, able to love life and still see the good and be grateful for what they do have (albeit seemingly nothing).

from my perspective i cant imagine how anyone could be happy in their situation and i thank goodness i am not in theirs, however, i sometimes think it wouldn't matter what situation i was in, as long as i was happy.

maybe when we visit these places, it elevates our self-perception, but secretly and in some effed-up way, some of us envy them.